Backyard Builds breaks new ground in renovation television

When I first heard about Backyard Builds, I figured I knew what the show was about. It’s on HGTV Canada, so it was likely about, duh, cleaning up a cluttered backyard, fixing up a pool and constructing a new deck. The hosts, Sarah Keenleyside and Brian McCourt, would plot, plan (perhaps bicker a bit) and worry about budgets and, ultimately, get the job done.

I was, for the most part, wrong. Backyard Builds, debuting Thursday on HGTV Canada, certainly has elements of a typical renovation show—budgets, two hosts and building things—but blows conceptions about what a backyard space can be out of the water. Want proof? In Thursday’s debut, a Toronto couple pines for extra space for the husband to have an office. Keenleyside and McCourt come up with an ingenious idea: the plop a shipping container in the couple’s yard, insulate it, wire it for heat and turn it into the coolest office I’ve ever seen. (I had instant office envy. Have I mentioned I work in my basement?)

“We’re working with people whose homes are working for them but are at capacity,” Keenleyside says. “There is an untapped potential in their backyard and want to take advantage of the space that area has to offer. It’s hard for them to envision anything other than a new deck and landscaping. That’s where Brian and I come in.” After consulting with the homeowners about their needs and wants, the duo and their team work major magic. Every episode of the eight is a unique construction tailored to the clients’ wish list; an upcoming instalment includes two treehouses connected with a zipline.

“It’s kind of crazy that we’re the first ones to break out and do this in the back yard,” McCourt says. “We talk about a deck, a pool and beautiful landscaping, but it’s rare that people use the area for much else. It’s a cool territory to break into.”

Keenleyside, principal designer and co-owner of QanÅ«k Interiors Inc., brings her style knowledge to projects while McCourt’s expertise as a contractor, design expert and real estate flipper serves him well. He had never worked in television and she had appeared on Steven & Chris and The Goods—both were called out of the blue by producers about trying out for the project from Frantic Films—and didn’t know each other, but they quickly bonded. Having hosts you like and want to watch is key to lifestyle programming, and HGTV has hit a home run with Keenleyside and McCourt. They’re easy on the eyes, sure, but they know their stuff, are articulate, don’t talk down to viewers and most importantly, have fun. Keenleyside certainly had fun in Episode 1 when a dream of hers came true related to her time at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Her program was heavy on environmental design and, in particular, the rise of shipping containers being used in Europe.

“Then this project presents itself,” Keenleyside says. “A long, linear back yard that needed a long, skinny structure … shooting this whole first season was worth it just to be able to work with a shipping container!” It didn’t go without challenges, however. Tight corners in a laneway, a tree and fence caused jangled nerves for everyone.

“There is some stuff that you don’t see on TV with that project,” McCourt says. “We had to lift wires up over the shipping container. Sarah and I have a lot of experience, but we are always doing something we haven’t done before on this show.”

And something viewers haven’t seen either.

Backyard Builds airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HGTV Canada.

Image courtesy of Corus.